[The following essay is excerpted from Steven Nemes’s Eating Christ’s Flesh: A Case for Memorialism (Cascade, 2023). Pick up a copy of the book here.]
It is also possible to present a second argument in favor of the symbolic reading of the words of institution. This argument suggests that the symbolic reading is more appropriate given the Passover context of the Lord’s Supper itself. Just as the Passover celebrated by the Jews in history is a symbolic ritual reenactment of the first Passover that took place during the Exodus from Egypt, so also the Eucharist is a symbolic ritual reenactment of the Last Supper that took place on the night of Jesus’s betrayal and death.
Zwingli made much of this argument in his polemics against the Real Presence paradigm in his own day. By way of introduction to the argument, it would be well to consider his explanation for why the disciples did not understand Jesus to be saying that the bread he held in his hands really was his body:
We are told neither that they exclaimed violently nor that they recoiled and shrank back from him in awe. And for this reason: Being Jews, they did not find anything novel in the words: “This is my body.” For every year when they ate the Paschal Lamb they heard the similar words: “The lamb is the passover,” and they had always taken it that these words meant simply that the lamb represents the passover. Hence they perceived that the Lord was instituting a similar feast of thanksgiving and using not dissimilar words. The result was that they did not feel any particular surprise, or awe, or sense of novelty at that which Christ said and did.
Zwingli refers to the passage in Exodus in which Moses explains to the Hebrews how they are to interpret the Passover feast which they are supposed to celebrate every year to their children:
You shall observe this as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, “What does this observance mean to you?” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.” (Exod 12:24–27)
It is also worth noting the explanation given to the ritual in m. Pes. 10:5 as follows:
In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8). In every generation, each person must say: “This which the Lord did for me,” and not: This which the Lord did for my forefathers.
One can appreciate from the language used in this commentary that the function of the ritual was to serve as a kind of reenactment of the original Passover event. Persons who celebrate the meal later in history are supposed to speak about themselves as though they had themselves taken part in the original event. This is for the sake of strengthening their identification with the people of God in history and with the God who saved them. They are to think of God as the redeemer of Israel and of themselves as members of the people of this God who saved them from slavery.
Some persons find in the provocative language used in m. Pes. 10:5 the suggestion that the Passover ritual is not “merely symbolic.” Witherington writes:
It needs to be stressed at this point that the celebration of Passover during and well before Jesus’ era was not seen as the mere celebrating of a memorial meal of purely symbolic value. When we hear about the current celebrants’ considering themselves part of the original exodus story (as a sort of “we were there” feature) such that they were among those delivered from bondage in Egypt, we see how this meal serves to strengthen the ethnic bond with previous generations of Jews, including the foundational members of the group. Thus anamnesis is more than remembering; it is a placing of current Jews in the ancient story such that it is and becomes once again their own story, their own trial and triumph, which took place in the Exodus-Sinai events.
Witherington thus emphasizes that the Passover ritual was intended not only for the remembering of a past event but also for the personal appropriation of the significance of that event by the persons celebrating the meal. Its purpose is to cultivate a certain kind of self-understanding in the Hebrews. They are to think of God as their redeemer and of themselves as a part of God’s redeemed people. But this is perfectly consistent with the items involved in the meal being symbols.
The Passover can be a symbol for the ritual appropriation to oneself of the history of the people of Israel in much the same way that a ring is the symbol for the ritual appropriation to oneself of another in the marriage ceremony. It is therefore not entirely fair for Witherington to say that the meal is not “of purely symbolic value.” This gives the impression that the symbolic value of a thing is insignificant. But as was explained in the first chapter, nothing is purely a symbol. To say that something is a symbol is already to speak of it as being used for the sake of relating to something else beyond it. To make a symbol of something is not to empty it of value but rather to give it more value than it would otherwise have. Zwingli also notes that the value of a symbol increases in proportion to the value of a thing it represents:
The value of all signs increases according to the value of that which they signify. If it is something great and precious and sublime, the sign is all the more highly valued. The ring with which your majesty was betrothed to the queen your consort is not valued by her merely according to the value of the gold: it is gold, but it is also beyond price, because it is the symbol of her royal husband.
This same point can therefore be applied in the case of the Passover. Precisely because the Passover is a symbol of the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery by God’s almighty power, it is more valuable to the Hebrew people than any non-symbolic meal could be. Its value arises out of its symbolic quality.
This point need not be disagreeable to Witherington. He means to say that the Passover meal is not of “purely symbolic value” insofar as its purpose is to cultivate a certain kind of self-understanding in the Hebrew people. One might say that its goal is to form “Israelite-consciousness” in the Jews who celebrate. But it has this purpose precisely because it is a symbolic reenactment of the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery. The Exodus is a foundational moment in the history of the people of Israel. It is a moment in which both their identity as God’s people and God’s own identity as their redeemer are established in history. God gave his people the ritual of the Passover precisely to make sure that they always think of him and of themselves in these terms: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance” (Exod 12:14). To take part in the celebration of the Passover is therefore to appropriate this identity for oneself. And it is precisely the symbolic value of the meal that makes it possible for one to do this. It is because the various elements of the meal make the Exodus event present-to the persons celebrating it by means of their representational power that the meal can serve as the occasion for cultivating Israelite-consciousness.
Herbert McCabe complains that the symbolic interpretation of the words of institution empties the Eucharist of its mystery. He makes this argument specifically in response to “transignificationist” understandings of the Eucharist that had arisen in the twentieth century among Roman Catholic theologians. This perspective was proposed in order to replace transubstantiation with
a doctrine of “transignification,” according to which it was not that the being of the bread and wine became the being of Christ, but that the meaning which the bread and wine had as a symbol of our unity in a common meal, became through our faith a sign of deeper unity in the body of Christ.
McCabe complains against this theory that it seems to turn the Eucharist into a mere ordinary symbol much like the flag of a country. He writes that this perspective “seemed to empty [the Eucharist] of its mystery, not to say its interest.” But this complaint can be contested. Once more, making use of something as a symbol for something else is precisely a way of giving the symbolizing thing more value and importance than it would have otherwise. The bread and wine of the eucharistic meal thus become more important than ordinary food precisely because they are the symbols of Christ’s person and work, which from the Christian point of view are the most important things for human existence. It is true that to consider the bread and wine as symbols is to empty the Eucharist of its “mystery” if by this is meant that one is made capable of understanding how the Eucharist “works.” But the Memorialist will insist that this is a good thing. Just as the purpose of the Passover is to cultivate Israelite-consciousness by the reenactment and symbolic representation of the event of Exodus, so also one can say that the purpose of the Eucharist is to cultivate Christian-consciousness by the symbolic representation of the person and work of Jesus. The goal is to make it possible to eat Christ’s flesh in the sense of taking joy in who he is and what he has done. There is no need to introduce further mystery into it.
Brant Pitre argues that the interpretation of the Passover in m. Pes. 10:5 cited above supports the Real Presence paradigm. He suggests that the Jews understood the Passover ritual to make it possible to “participate” in the Exodus event. He writes that
the ancient rabbis saw each annual celebration of the Passover as a way of participating in the first exodus. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was not just a sacrifice; it was also a “memorial” or “remembrance” (Exodus 12:14) by which the Jewish people would both remember and somehow make present the deliverance that had been won for their ancestors in the exodus from Egypt.
Pitre especially finds a special significance in the prescribed form of speech found in m. Pes. 10.5: “This which the Lord did for me.” He comments:
With these words, we see quite clearly that for ancient Jews, the Passover feast was not just a remembrance of what God had done for their ancestors. In some mysterious way, they saw each Passover, “in every generation,” as a way of sharing in the original act of redemption. Although living centuries after the first exodus, the father would speak of the event as if it were something he himself had experienced.
With these remarks, Pitre means to suggest that something more was understood to be taking place during the Passover than the simple remembrance of the Exodus. It is rather a real “participation” in the past event. Robert Paul makes a similar claim about the function of ἀνάμνησις (“remembrance”) in Paul’s retelling of the words of institution:
There is very much more in this word than the simple action of recalling to mind something that has happened—it is calling an event back to life, the action of bringing an event out of the past into the present.
But these ideas are not uncontroversial, as Julie Gittoes’s discussion of the interpretation of ἀνάμνησις shows. G. D. Kilpatrick argues strongly that ἀνάμνησις sooner means something like “proclamation.” After twice repeating the term in his retelling of the words of institution (1 Cor 11:23–25), Paul explains the meaning of the Eucharist: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death [τὸν θάνατον τοῦ κυρίου καταγγέλλετε] until he comes” (v. 26). Proclamation would seem to be a synonym for ἀνάμνησις. This is also the general meaning of the verb ἀναμιμνήσκω as used in the Old Testament. One can therefore call into question the appeal to the notion of ἀνάμνησις in support of the Real Presence paradigm. In any case, Pitre’s arguments in this particular respect are not convincing. The clarifications regarding the concepts of symbol and presence given in the first chapter make it possible to respond to him from the Memorialist perspective.
Pitre claims that the Passover ritual was understood to make the Exodus event present to those celebrating the meal in order that they might participate in it. This sentence is agreeable in one sense but highly contentious in another. Recall that there is a difference between presence-to and presence-by. To be present-to someone is to be the object of that person’s attention, whereas to be present-by someone is to be there prior to and independently of anyone’s awareness. It is possible to participate in things simply by their being made present-to the one who would participate in them. They do not also need to be present-by. This is true independently of whether the present-to thing is real or not. For example, works of art like literature and film make it possible to participate in the world in which their narratives take place. This is true whether the world is a false one, as in Lord of the Rings, or a relatively true one, as in All Quiet on the Western Front. It is precisely a characteristic of high-quality narrative art that it makes a world participable through the vivid description of things in that world. But the one who consumes such art participates in that world without its being present-by. Middle Earth is clearly not present-by the person who reads Lord of the Rings, nor does the one who reads All Quiet on the Western Front really travel back in time in order that the events of World War I be present-by him or her. Participation in something does not always require its presence-by. One can therefore say that the Passover makes the Exodus present-to those who celebrate it and in this way enables them to participate in the past event. But the Passover is a ritual reenactment and so does not consist in time travel. It does not make the Exodus present-by, nor does it have to in order to accomplish its desired effect.
It is true that not all participation is of a kind. It is one thing to participate in the world of Lord of the Rings, and it is another to participate in the world of All Quiet on the Western Front. Middle Earth does not exist, whereas World War I really happened. The participation in the former is a matter of fantasy, whereas the participation in the latter is to some extent a matter of immersion in real history. The significance of the participation in either world therefore differs according to the reality or irreality of that in which one participates. But this does not mean that something further must be happening in the Passover. The Passover is significant for Jews because it is a kind of ritual reenactment of the night of the Exodus when God liberated the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. The person who takes part in the Passover is participating in and identifying him- or herself with something remembered that is taken to be real rather than fictive. This is sufficient to make the Passover meal more significant than a narrative work of fiction. But the participation in the past event is taking place by means of the same mechanism. The Exodus is made present-to those celebrating the Passover through the symbolic and representational function of the meal. This is how the ritual makes it possible for one to participate in the Exodus events. It is participation by means of commemoration and personal appropriation through symbols.
Something similar can be said with respect to the Eucharist. One can say that the Eucharist provides Christians with an opportunity to “participate” in the event of the passion and death of Jesus. This is because of the symbolic and therefore representational function of the symbols of the bread and wine. They make Jesus’s person and work present-to Christians, and this includes especially the fact of his death as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. A person can ritually participate in a thing when it is made present-to him or her by means of a symbol or representation of it. And here as in the case of the Exodus earlier it is a matter of participation by commemoration and personal appropriation through symbols. By eating the bread and drinking the wine, Christians appropriate to themselves Jesus’s work on their behalf. They are in this way assuming the identity of persons for whom Jesus died and who for that reason understand themselves to be God’s children and redeemed people. Craig Keener is worth quoting at length:
As the Passover annually commemorated (and allowed new generations to share the experience of) the first redemption . . . , so the Lord’s supper regularly did the same for the climactic redemption. Traditions suggest that in annually reenacting the Passover, Jewish people felt that they shared their ancestors’ experience (m. Pesah. 10:5). The regular reenactment of the Lord’s supper was no doubt intended to have the same effect, conscious of the Lord’s presence and act of redemption.
Both the Passover and the Eucharist involve remembering and personally appropriating fundamental acts of redemption by reference to which the identity of the group is determined. This is therefore the sense in which the Eucharist is a matter of sharing in the body and blood of Jesus: by claiming the benefits thereof for oneself through the ritual celebration of the meal. This is also how the Eucharist makes it possible to participate in the death of Christ by means of the representational power of the symbols of bread and wine: as a kind of reenactment which makes that event present-to.
There is a further point worth making here. The father of the household celebrating the Passover is supposed to tell his children: “This which the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt” (m. Pes. 10:5). The temporality of the language being used here must be noted. It is true that the Passover ritual serves to make the event of the Exodus present-to those celebrating the meal. That is its function as a memorial reenactment. But the Exodus is also being participated in precisely as a past event. What is being celebrated is what the Lord did, not what the Lord is presently doing. This means that the Exodus event is only being made present-to as past and not also present-by. If it were being made present-by, one would not speak about it as though it had already happened but rather as though it were presently happening. The father should then say “This which the Lord is doing for us,” not “This which the Lord did for me.” What has already happened is precisely not present-by. But this is not the language one finds in m. Pes. 10:5. The language being used there indicates that the persons celebrating the meal are not concurrently undergoing the Exodus event for themselves in some mysterious way but rather are appropriating the significance of the past Exodus event to themselves in the present. When the father of the household says, “This which the Lord did for me,” the meaning of the sentence is that the Exodus took place for his sake as well. The Lord also had this person in mind and not only his ancestors from the past. It does not at all mean that the Passover meal in some mysterious way affords him a mystical participation in the past Exodus event. That idea has no basis in the text.
Pitre also presents another argument from the analysis of the Passover for the conclusion that the bread and wine of the eucharistic meal really are Jesus’s body and blood. He notes the fact that the ritual celebration of the Passover required that one eat the lamb which was slain. He also argues that Jesus understood his own death, which he was pre-enacting in the celebration of the Last Supper, to be a fulfillment of the Old Testament ritual of the Passover. These facts makes it possible to understand what Jesus could have meant by saying that the bread is his body and inviting his disciples to eat it. Pitre writes:
When he said the words “This is my body,” did he mean only “This represents my body”? Or did he see the Last Supper as one of the last miracles he would perform, in which he actually transformed the bread and wine into his body and blood? Did he actually expect the disciples to eat his flesh, under the form of bread?
Endless battles have been waged over the meaning of the word “is” here, all to no avail. However, if we put Jesus’ words in context, we can discover a possible solution. For the context of his words is quite clear: it is the Jewish Passover. Well, then, let’s look again at the Passover. In the Old Testament, was it ever enough simply to sacrifice the lamb? No. Did the actual flesh of the lamb have to be eaten in order for the sacrifice to be complete? Yes. Could a symbol of the lamb’s flesh suffice? By now, we know that the answer is negative.
Pitre’s argument is therefore clear. Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a new Passover with himself taking the place of the sacrificial lamb. But it was necessary in the old Passover that one really eat the meat of the lamb which was slain. It is therefore necessary in the new Passover of the Eucharist that one really eat Jesus. But what one eats in the new Passover is the bread which Jesus says is his body. Therefore, the bread of the eucharistic meal really is the body of Jesus. This is how Pitre argues from the Passover context of the Last Supper to the conclusion of the Real Presence eucharistic paradigm.
But this argument of Pitre’s does not convince, either. It will suffice to note the objection given in the previous chapter. Jesus’s body and blood cannot be perceived in the bread and wine of the eucharistic meal. This would normally imply that they are not present. This means that if they are to be present, their mode of presence must be understood as purely substantial. But purely substantial presence means illocal presence as well. His body and blood therefore are not there in the specific place where the Eucharist is being celebrated. If they were there in that place, then they would be perceptible as such. Yet eating is a local process. A thing cannot be eaten unless it is there where the eating is taking place. That is why one cannot eat one’s cake and have it in the hands, as well. Whatever is being eaten is not in the hands and vice versa. It therefore follows that if Jesus’s body and blood are not locally present where the Eucharist is being celebrated, then they are not really being eaten. This means that the Real Presence paradigm does not offer an intelligible explanation of how Christ’s flesh is supposed to be eaten during the Eucharist after all, despite what Pitre says.
It is worth noting that the Memorialist can agree with Pitre that the flesh of Christ must be eaten in the Eucharist just as the flesh of the lamb had to be eaten during the Passover. But it does not follow that the eating is literal in both cases. The supposed real presence of Jesus’s body and blood in the eucharistic meal obscures rather than explains how this eating is supposed to take place. How can his flesh be eaten if he is not locally present there where the Eucharist is being celebrated? He does not go into the mouth. The best the proponent of the Real Presence paradigm can say is that the eating of the bread and wine provides an occasion for a real union to be effected between Jesus and his disciples. But there is no reason to call that “eating Christ’s flesh.” What is being eaten on this scheme is precisely not Christ’s flesh, whereas the interaction between the believer and Christ’s flesh is not one of eating but rather something else altogether—a fusing or uniting. It is therefore better instead to say that the eating of Christ’s flesh that is at stake in the Eucharist is figurative. It is a spiritual form of eating. It is a matter of taking joy in his person and work on one’s behalf. The bread and wine of the meal provide an occasion to engage in this kind of eating sacramentally because they function as symbols that represent Christ’s person and work to those who take part in the meal. This account of things makes everything intelligible.
It is now possible to summarize the argument of this chapter. When Jesus takes bread in his hands and calls it his body, he can be understood to have been speaking figuratively. He was proposing the bread as a symbol or image which represents his body. There are two considerable arguments in favor of this position. First, one can naturally and intuitively appreciate figurative speech where there is a contradiction between quod dicitur ad litteram (what is said taken literally) and quod videtur (what is seen). But there is this contradiction in the case of the words of institution. This is because the bread is not perceived as body. Therefore, one can understand Jesus to have been speaking figuratively. Second, the figurative interpretation of Jesus’s words accords well with the Passover context in which the Last Supper was celebrated. Just as the Passover is a ritual reenactment and symbolic representation of the events of the Exodus, so also the Eucharist is the symbolic representation of Jesus’s person and work. Just as the Passover makes the events of the Exodus present-to the Jews celebrating it so that they may participate in them by way of a reenactment, so also the Eucharist makes the passion and death of Jesus present-to Christians so that they appropriate Christ’s person and work for themselves and thus cultivate the identity of persons who understand themselves to be God’s children redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus.
. Ulrich Zwingli, “On the Lord’s Supper,” 228.
. This text is available online at https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Pesachim.10.5.
. Ben Witherington III, Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord’s Supper, 10.
. Ulrich Zwingli, “Exposition of the Faith,” 262.
. Herbert McCabe, “Eucharist as Language.”
. McCabe, “Eucharist as Language,” 132.
. McCabe, “Eucharist as Language,” 132.
. Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, 64.
. Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots, 65–66.
. Robert S. Paul, The Atonement and the Sacraments: The Relation Of The Atonement To The Sacraments Of Baptism And The Lord’s Supper, 368.
. Julie Gittoes, Anamnesis and the Eucharist: Contemporary Anglican Approaches, ch. 1.
. G. D. Kilpatrick, The Eucharist in Bible and Liturgy, 12–27.
. Kilpatrick, Eucharist in Bible and Liturgy, 16.
. Kilpatrick, Eucharist in Bible and Liturgy, 15.
. Craig S. Keener, 1–2 Corinthians, 98–99.
. Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots, 74.
. Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots, 68–74.
. Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots, 75.
Steven Nemes is an academic theologian and instructor of Latin, Greek, and Humane Letters at North Phoenix Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Orthodoxy and Heresy (2022), Theology of the Manifest: Christianity without Metaphysics (2023), Theological Authority in the Church: Reconsidering Traditionalism and Hierarchy (Cascade, 2023), Trinity and Incarnation: A Post-Catholic Theology (Cascade, 2023), and Eating Christ’s Flesh: A Case for Memorialism (Cascade, 2023).